A couple of weeks ago, Ian McDonald penned a heartfelt tribute to a dearly departed friend and colleague from the world of sugar. More than just a life fondly and graciously remembered, the brief eulogy was, in the author’s inimitable style, an evocation of a bygone era.
According to our Sunday scribe, the “quintessentially English” Colin Campbell was an eccentric but brilliant expert on the sugar trade. In an age, moreover, when the microchip was unknown and when people relied almost wholly on the natural computer that is the brain, Mr Campbell “carried around mountains of files to supplement the Everest in his head,” literally wading through reams of paper filled with data and regulations, to support the negotiations for the best possible deal for the sugar industries of Guyana, the Caribbean, Africa and the Pacific. Today, this is perhaps almost incomprehensible to those accustomed to navigating the infinite vastness of the Internet and accessing facts and figures at the touch of a button on their laptops, tablets and increasingly smaller and sophisticated hand-held devices.
Some of the more old-fashioned amongst us might be inclined to scoff at the exponents of the new ways, perhaps considering them less rigorous in the application of their intellect and less than painstaking in preparing for complex negotiations. From what we read of him two Sundays ago, the self-effacing and supremely modest Mr Campbell would have been one of the last persons to take such a view. But what seems certain is that his was a life lived according to an ethos of unassuming service.
Indeed, in recalling the life and times of his friend, Mr McDonald also takes the opportunity to remind us of the good done by the elder Campbell, Jock, the Booker reformer, whose life’s work was dedicated to establishing a world-class sugar industry and improving the lot of sugar workers in Guyana. This story has been, of course, superbly recounted by Prof Clem Seecharan, one of this country’s most outstanding historians and himself a child of the sugar belt, in his scholarly tome, Sweetening Bitter Sugar, which debunks many of the popular myths and prejudices perpetuated by the anti-colonial narrative.
The Campbells were committed to a sugar industry run by Guyanese and run well. In this respect, one cannot be sure whether Mr McDonald is sending out a subliminal message on the state of the sugar industry in Guyana today. But his opening of a window on the past inevitably prompts consideration of an industry that has been run down and is now practically on life support. Our editorials of May 20, 2013 (‘Sugar: A disastrous performance’) and June 24, 2013, (‘What’s the strategy for sugar?’) have already analysed the depths to which the industry has sunk and called for immediate action. Other knowledgeable commentators have also weighed in with their views and proffered well-meaning and expert advice. But to no avail.
Some feel that it may be too late for sugar, especially as the government appears deaf to the entreaties of all, seemingly preferring to view the managerial, agricultural and technical problems bedevilling the industry through the political lens. Even now, when faced with as great a crisis as sugar has ever faced in Guyana, the government cannot bring itself to eschew political loyalty in the interest of assembling a board of proven and competent agriculturalists, industrialists, entrepreneurs and technocrats – something pretty much the whole country would agree is the necessary first step to rehabilitating the industry and perhaps returning to an adaptation of the Booker Tate business plan which was trashed by the Jagdeo administration.
The world of the Campbells may be history and alien to many of us, but surely the ethos of service they embodied, privileged as they were, can also be found in Guyanese in Guyana and around the world, whatever their politics. Can the government not recognise this?